Forvie’s dynamic dunes

Forvie NNR host the tail end of one of the largest Sand Dune systems in the UK. The Dune system begins from near Aberdeen city up along the coast past Balmedie, Forvern Burn and half way through the Forvie NNR reserve before giving way to coastal cliff.

The Big Dune at Forvie NNR – a free moving dune slowly shifting North

As hard as it is to imagine, these “shifting dunes” true to their name are mobile. The dunes move with the prevailing wind, sand added and recycled from far off the coast driven by the tide.

Since starting my position at Forvie I’ve been fascinated with the dunes. The southern end of the reserve is dominated by a large expanse of sand slacks and sand dunes, partially visible in the photo above. A bleak, lifeless environment on the surface but one of stark beauty which bursts to life with the arrival of the terns and gulls for breeding.

Over the last few months here I’ve met a number of wonderful folk that have previously worked here, my predecessors on the reserve. Each of them would mention after after many years of not seeing the dunes they can’t believe how the landscape has changed. I’ve had a glimpse of this recently through an old photo of the seal haul-out that was shared. At the time we did not know how old this photo was but we took another snap from roughly the same location to compare the changes.

Old photo (Lorne Gill) – Ythan mouth from Newburgh beach
Current photo (Sep 2019)

The pill box has gone from being almost completely buried to being totally exposed – that’s a shift of at least 2-3 meters of sand deep being moved. Enough sand has been shifted to expose rock on the seal haul out where non was visible before.

Looking further into the background there is now an imposing ridge of sand with a drop onto the beach. All in all, who know how many thousands of tonnes of sand shifted changing the landscape. In the end the old photo was only taken in the summer of 2016 so this change occurred only over the last 3 years!

Even in my 5 months here, it sometimes seems to change overnight. I notice small changes over time but occasionally I find myself seeing new paths through the dunes wondering if that was there as I walked through yesterday, climbing a dune thinking this seems more steep – or was it my imagination? The dunes a labyrinth of sand, a puzzle being reworked by the wind.

These photos sparked a new appreciation for the dunes in me and their importance. Why is this dynamic nature needed on the coastline? Outside of the unique habitat that dunes create for flora and fauna, they act as a barrier against the seas. They are a natural defense against rising sea levels and given the current climate emergency they are becoming only more important on our coast, protecting inland areas from the seas and storms. Dunes are not our only natural defense on the coast. Cliffs protect inland areas from storm waves and wetlands reduce flood risks. In the end, I am all the more thankful for the dunes and our natural world here at Forvie.

Forvie NNR sand dunes – our natural defense ยฉLorne Gill/SNH

Easterly winds, rising rubbish and oil spills

After a period of solely westerly facing winds disspointinly for the birding community, we have over the last couple of weeks had a few days of easterly winds.

Along with days of strong easterly winds Forvie Beach is more inclined to collect marine litter, forced up the beach from the tide and the winds.

On a recent trip down to the beach we started seeing a number of large items that we decided to collect at a later date when the 4×4 was available. Having returned a few days later I was already struggling to see some of the rubbish and briefly thought maybe someone had moved it? Until i see the tail end of rope sticking out of the sand I realised that a lot of it had been buried by sand already!

Almost totally buried

It did make me pause and think, how much more rubbish has gathered under the sand? Buried and exposed over and over with passing storms, a landfill under your feet perhaps. Maybe some of this rubbish didn’t wash up recently but has been laying under the sand for some time until it was exposed again with recent winds?

marine litter fashioned into a roving bin along the beach

Aside from that it was important to remove it. From some fish boxes and a good length of rope on the beach I made an impromptu roving bin, to collect marine litter as I made my way up the beach.

A leaking container of used engine oil was found on the beach.

This leaking oil was definitely one of the saddest things that I’ve come across and very difficult to remove/deal with.

As I was writing this article someone brought a second leaking container of oil up to the office – 2 in 2 days, dangerous stuff

What I wasn’t expecting while I collected a few items along the beach was the response of people out for a walk on the reserve. While my intention was to collect a few large items various small groups were walking up the beach collecting smaller pieces and adding to the pile or taking it with them. To me, this is a big part of what working with SNH is all about, connecting people and nature. But this was inspiring in a unique way. There was no event, no planned beach clean – people took time out of there day on a whim and it soon reminded me of an impromptu beach clean. No one was asked to help, they simply did – they were connected people and nature.

Rewilding on a small scale.

Outside the visitor centre at Forvie there is a wealth of plant life from birds-foot trefoil, greater birds-foot trefoil, thistle, black knapweed, ragwort, rosebay willowherb, ox-eye daisies etc.. This diversity offers advantages to a wide variety of other life – from nectar rich flowers for pollinators to preferred food stuff of certain caterpillars. This in turn helps insectivorous species like our small birds, that also feed of the seeds of some of these plants as well.

Red admiral on some ragwort during the flowering season outside the visitor centre

At this time of year most of the flowers are out of season are dying off and seeding the ground, providing plenty of food for migrant and resident birds.

Black knapweed with a late flowering head and older buds containing seeds

The plant life at the centre is self managing, gardening here is quite easy. With the seeds of these plants readily available we decided to collect a small portion to spread down at waterside car park.

There are areas there, verges of the car park, that host predominantly grasses docks and nettles. To help bolster a wildflower meadow we spread the small amount of seed collected on the edges of the vegetation – the roughed up edges to the vegetation have a better chance for new plants and small plants to sprout.

It may take a couple of years to notice any difference but hopefully some plants will start to take hold and help feed our wildlife.

If you are fortunate enough to have your own garden an unkept part to your garden, a small wildflower rich meadow, along with srubs etc. can massive contribution to wider wildlife. It helps connect wild areas for wildlife like Forvie to the wider countryside

Razorbills – a tight squeeze

While I was sorting photos to do some computer housekeeping as you will, I came across some photos of razorbills on the Forvie cliffs during this years breeding season.

A razorbill and its plump little chick on a very narrow nest
a tight squeeze under a parent

Outside of having a good chuckle at the sight watching a big chick squeeze under a parent on such a tiny ledge, I also came to further appreciated a razorbills adaptations to nesting on the cliffs, living life on the edge (I hope you haven’t come to my blog for witty writing, that there is as good as it gets).

To think not only do the parents nest here but they can successfully fledge chicks that are moving around, curious to the their new world, all the while perched on a ledge that could be only a few inches wide.

While they are remarkable creatures and can nest on practically any crack, crevice or ledge, that doesn’t mean that they are always happy with their home. Or in this instance, their neighbors.

Bird on the right just received an unwelcome gift from the top floor neighbour. Maybe a different spot next year

Geese flocking over Forvie

With the breeding season closed for the most part there is a small lull, if you can call it that, to catch up on other activities on the reserve. This is a brief moment in the scope of the year with wintering birds making there way to the reserve and the wider country.

One species that is arriving at force at the moment is the pink-footed goose. They breed further North in Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard. After they moult their feathers, families of pinkies set off on their migration south for better feeding. For me it is without a doubt one of the highlights of the autumn wildlife calendar. Seeing skein after skein flying overhead, their calls a beautiful autumn soundtrack!

A skein of pinkies flying over the Forvie

It really started kicking of last week with flocks passing overhead all day. During October, Forvie NNR will start seeing its peaks numbers. They will start settling in and around the reserve in fields and lochs, finding resting sites at dusk and taking off for feeding grounds at dawn.

At its best, their numbers here can be North of 15,000 and it is definitely worth a visit to come down and see. A little closer to the best dates to see we will post another blog about the numbers around the reserve and how to best enjoy the spectacle.

But in the meantime, keep an ear open if you’re on the dunes for the familiar noise passing over head.

Our resident seals and the season changeover

Following on from a familiar theme in our blogs about the reserve, autumn is here. The end of the summer here at Forvie is signified with the departure of our fascinating terns back to West Africa and further south to the Antarctic.

With the terns gone, the barrier fence closing of the south end of the dunes to the Ythan Estuary mouth has been removed. This has opened up the reserve a little more for some exploring (and there was a lot to explore already) until next April with the return of the tern colony and the re-installation of the barrier fence.

A change in the season brings a change in the wildlife.

We are starting to see a lot of different wader species come in through the estuary. Both sides of the estuary are filling up with juvenile birds which unlike their parents, they are shockingly comfortable around people! Last week on the Newburgh side of the estuary during high tide a flock of juvenile knot landed extremely close and happily fed away while people watched nearby. It can be an amazing experience to see so make sure you keep your eyes peeled when you’re near the estuary ๐Ÿ™‚

Sanderling feeding in the shallows

In the coming month we will also start seeing the spectacle of Pink Footed geese arriving on their autumn migration from their northern home. Although I will miss the terns I am very much looking forward to the familiar sight and sound of geese cackling overhead.

The Forvie Seal colony

Although there is plenty of change, one of the many species that are resident here at Forvie NNR all year round are our Grey seals and Common Seals. They truly are an amazing sight and long before I got the opportunity to work here at Forvie, I made regular trips to see the haul-out. The seals come to rest on the now open south end of the reserve.

The seals here are Forvie are protected as a designated seal haul-out. It is an offence to intentionally harass the seals. In other words, as with a lot of other protected species on the reserve, respect has to be given to the space and welfare of the animals. For this reason please do not go see the seals at Forvie through the Ternery or from walking along Forvie Beach. To help protect and reduce disturbance to the seals there is a blue roped barrier fence as a last defense on the southern tip of the reserve which we advice people to stay behind. There are also plenty of informative signs about the seals on the reserve so please give them a read as you pass! In some cases seals might chose to rest their blubbery bodies elsewhere (further up the beach for instance or on the Newburgh side of the estuary) so pay attention to their behaviour wherever you see them and do not approach them. If they are raising their heads from rest and looking in your directions they are getting anxious. This is a definitive signal to back away give them more space!

Forvie National Nature Reserve – Blue zone with red marker on bottom left corner showing the location of the blue roped barrier fence along a sand dune edge.

As I discovered for myself, you can get a truly magical experience of the seals from Newburgh beach and this is where we advise you to go see them from.

The best views of the seals from Newburgh Beach

High tide can be the best time to visit as the seals will haul-out high up on the beach to rest, with many swimming up and down the estuary, curiously peaking their heads above water to see what you’re all about as you pass. Occasionally with the safety of the water around them they come very close to the waters edge while checking you out! I would note to please be careful when skipping stones when you see seals around, you never know when one will be just under the waters murky surface. Although you may be very close in this instance keeping water between you and the seals allows them to feel safe and it is a great rule of thumb to go by.

Grey seals curiously watching people walk past

So get out and enjoy the reserve! There is a lot going and a lot passing through, just remember to do it responsibly.

The Little Terns of Forvie

With the arrival of our arctic, common, sandwich and little terns it’s all hands on deck here at Forvie. The breeding terns here are of international importance and this is no more true than for the Little Terns. They are currently identified as a conservation priority under both national and international directives.

The tern colony overall has had a successful year. Sandwich Terns have had an excellent year with approximately 700 fledged birds with our Commic terns (Common and Arctic Terns) having an average year with a peak fledgling number approx 370.

Our little terns have on the other hand had an unfortunate year. A species that is struggling historically in the UK, the colony continued on this path this year and had a sad downfall predominantly due to predation and unfortunate weather conditions

We monitor all the species and ensure all due protection is given from ground predators, using an electric fence, and from human disturbance, using another fence.

Little Terns settled in on there nests here at Forvie NNR
A quick meeting for a chat during the breeding season

Early on the little tern nesting success had promising signs with 28 pairs settling in. The nests were monitored closely throughout the season and it was a happy moment to see chicks on the way and good clutch sizes.

Some of our first little chicks

It was a short lived moment as with the heavy rain and stormy weather over the summer, Little Tern nests starting to empty without any chicks. In the midst of this eggs were lost to avian predation as well. An Oystercatcher with chicks was caught on camera stealing an egg from a Little Tern nest.

Adult Oystercatcher stealing Little tern egg to feed its own chicks

Of the original nests few survived the predicament they were in but was a ray of hope. There were 10 new nests identified on the outskirts of the original colony. Many of these were likely a second clutch attempt from the birds who earlier lost their eggs and chicks.

Although it was possible for success of a fledged Little Tern, the season was getting on. Their chances were getting lower and lower by the day as birds they rely on for protection clear out of the colony leaving the leaving the Little Terns to fend for themselves.

As with the first clutches there was some hatching success but again bad weather and further predation decimated the final nests in the colony.

A Little Tern chick being cared for by a parent
Moments later, snapped away by a Black Headed Gull

This Little Tern chick is easy pickings for an adult Black Headed Gull. Although it was sad to see, it is a normal part of colony life for the terns. While this chick was lost and might seem bad, the Black Headed Gulls presence in the colony early on would have offered much needed protection and deterrent to bigger avian predators.

In the end, after a long season the Little Terns had no success this year. They are naturally poor breeders with low productivity but with less than 2000 nesting birds in the UK all efforts will be given again next year so they have the best possible chance at putting young new birds back into the world.